Aspen airport runway extension receiving support |

Aspen airport runway extension receiving support

ASPEN ” The Pitkin County commissioners expressed preliminary support Tuesday for extending the Aspen airport runway by up to 1,000 feet as a way of bringing in more tourists allegedly without triggering growth or environmental impacts.

The commissioners voted 5-0 to direct their staff to proceed with a more detailed study of the idea. That study, called an environmental assessment or EA, is necessary to secure federal funding for a project that could cost up to $22 million.

Consultants have already dived into some of the runway extension issues and they presented their preliminary findings to the commissioners Tuesday. The board members seemed particularly enamored with the idea that extending the runway would allow commercial airlines to fill their existing flights fuller.

Currently, SkyWest must place weight restrictions on its CRJ700 aircraft flying from Aspen to Denver on summer days when the temperature tops 80 degrees, according to a report from Mark McFarland of Barnard Dunkelberg and Co. To utilize the existing runway at higher temperatures, SkyWest leaves 11 seats empty on United Express flights on those hot days. Extending the runway by 1,000 feet would give the carrier the opportunity to fill those seats, McFarland said.

There are also payload restrictions on direct service to destinations further away than Denver. Extending the runway by 1,000 feet would allow United Express to fill five additional seats during winters and seven seats in summers for service to Chicago, the study showed.

The consultants examined what effect the ability to sell additional seats would have had from March 1, 2007 through Feb. 28, 2008. Over the course of that period, an additional 13,294 seats could have been offered on CRJ700 aircraft with a longer runway, McFarland said. That would be the equivalent 201 additional flights ” without adding an operation.

Not all of those seats would be sold, McFarland acknowledged. Last year, flights leaving Aspen were 71 percent full, what the airline industry calls a load factor. Even so, it translates into a significant increase in available seats, he said.

County Commissioner Rachel Richards said demand for service in and out of Aspen

is likely to growth over time. Filling existing flights to greater capacity rather than adding flights that cannot be completely filled is more desirable, she said.

“The idea of fewer but fuller airplanes is attractive to me,” said Richards.

Commissioner chairman Jack Hatfield contended that a longer runway wouldn’t be at odds with Pitkin County’s long tradition of growth control. The county won’t add a runway or air space, he said.

“I’m not thinking this is a growth issue,” said Hatfield.

The airport staff and consultants have already presented the runway extension plan to community groups. McFarland said the top concern is that a longer runway would allow larger aircraft to operate at Aspen airport. He said restrictions on aircraft wingspans and on the weight that the runway can support will prohibit larger aircraft.

“The largest aircraft types that operate at the airport now will be the largest aircraft types that operate in the future,” said a memo from Elwood to the county commissioners.

A proposal to extend the runway was shot down by Pitkin County voters in the mid-1990s. Hunter S. Thompson led opposition against the proposal backed by the Aspen Skiing Co. and much of the business community.

The board members also were assured that a runway extension would result in a nominal increase in noise from aircraft operations.

The consultant team downplayed the runway extension’s potential impact on greenhouse gas emissions ” a touchy topic in Aspen. A 2005 study for the city of Aspen claimed commercial and private aircraft flights accounted for 41 percent of the town’s total emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. Critics contend the methodology of the study was flawed and produced too high of a figure.

The airport’s own study showed a much lower greenhouse gas production.

Elwood told the commissioners a case can be made that enhanced service to Aspen/Pitkin County Airport could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that Aspen’s tourists and residents produce. Fuller flights reduce the emissions per passenger. In addition, if more seats are available to the market, fewer passengers will fly into another airport ” like Grand Junction, Eagle County or Denver ” and drive to Aspen.

However, it is possible that a longer runway will show, at least on paper, that the airport is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions. The airport’s emissions study used jet fuel sales as a barometer of greenhouse gas production. Fuel sales are an industry standard for measuring emissions at the moment.

A longer runway would allow commercial and private aircraft to take on more fuel at Aspen, pilots have noted. So future studies of greenhouse gases could show an increase in emissions.

Elwood acknowledged in a prior interview that there could be an irony in greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The longer runway could lower greenhouse gas emissions in a global view, because of more efficient air travel and reduced vehicle travel to Aspen. Yet, a study could reflect greater emissions due to higher jet fuel sales, Elwood said.

McFarland said greenhouse gas emissions will be examined in the environmental assessment.

Elwood estimated that study will cost $880,000. The Federal Aviation Administration would cover 95 percent of the cost, leaving about $45,000 to be covered by Pitkin County government.

The study will look at varying lengths of extensions for the runway, but the majority of commissioners expressed a preference for 1,000 feet. In today’s dollars, a 1,000-foot runway extension would cost between $19.27 million and nearly $22 million,

according to the memo to the commissioners.

The federal government would pay for 95 percent, if the project was approved by the FAA.

“Better here than Alaska,” quipped county commissioner Michael Owsley.

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